Design for life

Scott Clear, Chief Design & Innovation Officer at RKS Design

When we hear something about designers, the first thing coming to mind is the guy drawing cars, creating fonts for the beer labels or simply playing with forms and shapes. Still there is a higher — or deeper — level often hidden from the common customer’s eyes. Scott Clear is one of those belonging to the elite group of designers who actually deal not only with looks of everyday things, but visions of the things to come and their connection with users. Among his clients were Honda, Samsung, Microsoft, Denon and many more — all served with the most up-to-date or, if dare say, up-to-future projects and ideas. Once an architect, Scott through his eye, mind and curiosity became a person who deals with design in its most strategic sense. Nowadays Scott Clear is the Chief Design & Innovation Officer at the RKS Design, based in Los Angeles. This year he has also become the first Product Design Jury President for the seminal CLIO Awards. In the interview for the Live magazine Scott, a real design scientist with hands on materials and eyes on the shape, speaks on traditions and innovations, brands and human comprehension. “I used to be 30 years ahead of the curve,” — he says. Meet the man from the future.

You started your career as an architect many years ago. What were the turning points which eventually brought you to your current position – not only as a designer but also a thinker and theoretician?

My early days in architecture were a bit unorthodox. I believed buildings needed to fit into their materials and locations with a purpose, but I was also striving to achieve pure art and not willing to compromise and water down the vision. The tools I was using at the time were fairly primitive so I did some research and came across VPL (The company that invented Virtual Reality back in the 80’s — Live.). I immediately knew this was going to be my new secret weapon moving forward. I started using VR and discovered I could do more with it than just architecture. That’s when I began transitioning into automotive design, which turned out to be a better fit for the tools I was using. In 1990, I joined the world's largest transportation & product development company and they gave me access to all the new technologies. So I was fortunate to be one of the first VR (Virtual reailty — Live.) users and I also became one of the first users of 3D printing paired up with multiple prototyping aspects for full manufacturing abilities. This gave me a solid foundation to understand how things were made. And I never stop repeating “How can you be a designer if you don’t understand the materials and processes you’re designing for?”. So, after years of designing transportation and product programs I kept moving from one category to another. Building skills from business, branding, marketing, advertising, experimental psychology, and now education. Right now I’m working with the Savannah College of Art & Design (One of the top design schools in North America — Live.) to build a curriculum for an in-class and on-line 10-week course based solely on the RKS Psycho-Aesthetics Process. The faculty has said, “Finally, students for the first time will understand what to do with all the research and profiles they’ve been trained on”. I can’t wait to see how the years play out for the next generation of designers with the tools they have now.

Is there a “Scott Clear attitude” to design?

It’s interesting that you said “attitude” and not "style”. I’ve always believed designing is an attitude and not a profession. Designer attitudes consolidate multidimensional meanings and I’ve cultivated a number of attitudes over the years but the current Scott Clear attitude to design is – “Design for life and create a better future”.

The word “design” is very common these days. With all your experience, what meaning — or extra meaning — could you give to it?

Using the word “design” means so many things to so many people. Despite that today even a 3-year old kid could tell you all about design, I still see many corporations struggle with this thing called “Design” and how to apply it to their businesses. Typical business approaches like to use their internal tried and true processes to try to measure and value it. But like I was saying earlier, I believe design is an attitude, designers use emotion as a way to engage with the world. But the meaning of design can be very broad. Most might say design is simply a method of problem solving. But if I contextualize it to just products and services, I would summarize it more as:

“Design isn’t just about creating beauty, it’s also about creating market relevance with meaningful results”

Today’s design thinking has more to offer corporations as a means to cultivate creativity and innovation in a corporation. We’ve gone from being in a position of being told what to do to being asked what to do.

RKS works not only as a design bureau, but also as a kind of think tank. Could you describe how strategic thinking turns into practical solutions?

Leveraging Design Thinking is a system for designers to connect the wide array of dots between people’s sensibilities all the way to market opportunities. The challenge is that all businesses need design and design needs to make it about business. So the last thing any corporation needs is another idea, and worse, to implement another idea that lacks relevance. So in order to generate practical solutions using our strategic design thinking process, we start with framing each unique challenge holistically and carefully analyze the interconnections between objects, activities, and environments that make up people’s lives in order to uncover the means to engage consumers emotionally. This simple to use framework enables the translation of peoples’ desires into visual context while providing direction for innovation teams throughout the process of a project.

You also mentioned the educational course Psycho-Aesthetic Process earlier. What is the core idea of it? How does it help?

Companies invest fortunes on innovation and product strategy. But 80% of new products fail or underperform. Every year though, a few rare products succeed brilliantly because their creators have seamlessly integrated corporate strategy with design. They don’t deliver utilitarian objects; they craft rewarding, empowering experiences.

To outsiders this looks like magic; incomprehensible and impossible to reproduce, but it isn’t. Psycho-Aesthetics presents itself as a complete design process for making the “magic” happen over and over again. By approaching design systematically, Psycho-Aesthetics allows the creation of deep emotional connections between consumers and brands.

How do brands communicate with customers through design?

Great question. An easy indicator is when you see a brand focus on people and not things. Marketing materials sell that which is often unsubstantiated while Branding tells a story. A brand is a promise, and the design has to fulfill that promise. The product then becomes the message and in essence, becomes the most authentic representation of the promise.

How can you clearly determine that it is the design that works and not the aggressive marketing?

It’s easy these days if it’s already in the marketplace – users will tell you right away if it’s the brand, the design or the marketing that they based their decisions on. You’ll see this now more than ever in the e-Commerce spaces where people are giving reviews publically on everything. Another way of measuring who’s pulling more weight is when they can measure it financially, often through acquisitions. When you have two direct competitors that are fairly apples to apples – with the exception of design, you’ll be able to clearly delineate the winner between design and marketing. But I don’t like to see or be part of the typical power struggles between Design and Marketing. It’s a pretty straightforward approach to mitigate risk when corporations focus on bringing it all together and firing on all cylinders when it comes to brand, design, marketing and advertising and not relying on other team members to pick up the slack.

In your opinion, how has brand and product design developed in recent decades?

A lot has been written lately about the strategic value that design can bring to corporations – and although it’s been difficult to define at times, we’ve seen in The Design Value Index funded by Microsoft that Design driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%, crediting design conscious companies like Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Nike, Starbucks, Steelcase, Walt Disney and others. And when you compare Product Design Driven vs. Brand Design Driven in the consumer spaces, the values can really take off. For example, compare Apple's purchase of Beats for 3 Billion dollars, when you compare that to other headphone companies that recently sold in the tens of millions — though impressive, Beats didn’t just create a product they created a category and Brand is King.

What are the points where industrial/product and brand design get linked together and in what ways?

Branding is the expression of the essential truth of a product. Every product and service is a representation of its brand and the brand makes a promise to its users. The hallmark of a great brand is one that not only understands but exceeds on what its users want from it and can over deliver on its promises. This is when a brand achieves an emotional connection that the users will never forget. To use a quote, Maya Angelou (American poet, writer and civil rights activist — Live.) said:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou, american poet, writer and civil rights activist

What trends in design thinking do you see these days and what is the next step?

Regarding trends, User Experience Design is the biggest up and comer in the design profession and this is going to play right into the new wave of Cognitive Computing that’s on the horizon. The arrival of Artificial Intelligence will have a resounding impact on our society, and will lead to the most impressive innovations of the next two decades. The rise of AI along with Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality are going to enable a whole new expression of design. And with this, AI raises an array of ethical questions, but it is also a design challenge. I’ve seen it. I do a lot of work with top innovation companies and I see the developments in it. Like many technologies AI is actually starting to design. You give AI a couple of parameters and it generates hundreds and even thousands of ideas while you sleep. And in the morning a designer or a creator simply has to choose ideas and alternatives according to their criteria. AI produces the concept part. It is at that stage now. It still needs understanding, advancement and refinement, but I am sure these things are coming as well. Yet it is the human who makes the final decision, so the Skynet years are still decades from now. But, you know, I used to be 30 years ahead of the curve. It is pretty common these days for us to work with technologies which are “20 years old”.

Why RKS decided to design guitars? Was it a kind of entertainment for such high-flying people as you? 

 A lot of us here just absolutely love music. We wanted to develop and utilize a fully sustainable material that was based on superior sound so that we could make a musical instrument. And we went to the Number 1 and Number 2 corporations in the world and essentially they told us that it was impossible. But the instinct told that there was a real possibility for it. Through the research we have found a company which wanted at least to try our idea — and it worked really well. Some corporations told us it would take years and millions of dollars, but, in fact, it took us only a few days.We did sell a few thousand of them to people all the way from The Eagles to The Rolling Stones and other great artists. But we ended up closing the guitar factory because it was drawing too much attention from the studio. Still, it did have a sense of business and passion combined together.

Is there a need to improve some tried and tested, symbolic designs? Say, we have the classical shapes of “Gibsons” and “Fenders” since the 50's. And there is a Bialetti coffee pot in front of me — all the same since the 30's…

Unless we’re talking about a disposable product, typically the intent from a designer’s point of view is for it to outlast them so they could achieve a sense of immortality, much like the things you have mentioned do. Today’s designers aspire to generate what they call “heirloom” designs — designs that will be passed on for generations. I’m not a big fan of the word “sustainable”. The definition has been abused and manipulated and it can make it difficult for young designers to get a straight answer on what might be the best methods to implement. Some say it means to design things that last longer, some say it’s to use fewer materials or make fewer parts, while others say it’s about using materials that are truly sustainable in the sense of being renewable or reusable. Personally I think we all have a responsibility and yes, it starts with design but corporations are building what the users are demanding. So, if you only want something like a Bialetti coffee pot or some other “heirloom” product – demand it… They’ll make it.

What is the first and foremost thing that any designer should keep in mind?

Question everything. Often projects start out by a top global expert telling me something’s impossible when the solution is often very simple. So keep your eyes, ears and heart open and don’t get too tangled up in assumptions.



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